This story is by des Anges Cruser and was part of our 2020 Summer Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Three weeks before Christmas, Dr. Ellie Philmore awakened from a troubled sleep to find herself secluded in a cold, dark cave. The previous day, at death’s knell for her husband Marc, Ellie had entered the Tunnel of Grief. Emotions embedded in its caves surface in the presence of someone suffering a loss. Ellie was in the first stage of Grief over the loss of love. Isolated in this cave, Shock numbed her psyche with its frigid breath, and Denial cloaked her vision. She would be there for at least a week.
Ellie had made previous journeys through this Tunnel, where emotions of Grief shaped her behaviors and her life choices. On those journeys, if she was uncertain which emotions she needed to process to find Acceptance or achieve Growth, Grief chose them for her. She had endured Anxiety and Self-Blame, and overcome Guilt, and Self-Pity. This time however, abandoned by True Love, the journey would threaten her sanity.
Just as each experience of human love and loss is unique, so is each experience with Grief. Seventeen years ago, Ellie’s father fell ill in early December. Like Marc, he died near Christmas time. She was not permitted to isolate in Grief until she fulfilled her duty as first-born, to comfort other mourners. In return for humility under pressure, Grief granted her redemption in the caves of Deliberation and Choice. There, it was revealed to her that in death, her father had released her from a promise he had exacted from her years ago; a promise to never divorce.
Exonerated, Ellie emancipated herself from twenty years of marital bondage to a man who did not love her, only berated, and belittled her. She had mourned and accepted the death of that relationship many years before the divorce. But because divorce for any reason is, in Grief’s book, a loss nonetheless, Ellie was quarantined with Anxiety and Self-Doubt until she mastered self-awareness, therewith vanquishing their limits on her life.
The following year, Ellie’s daughter Sadie died of a drug overdose. Confined in a cave with Denial, seeds of Guilt and Self-Pity took root in her soul. The power of these emotions conveyed her to the cave of Anger where she suffered for years with Self-Blame. Ellie never accepted Sadie’s death, and found no salvation from anguish. From that time forward she expected to pay a price for love.
Grief alters cognition and depletes the spirit. By now, Dr. Philmore had both intellectual and spiritual knowledge of Grief. She began to avoid human entanglements. She became increasingly solitary, leading a life sufficiently reclusive to be considered unapproachable. Then she met Dr. Marc Giroux.
They met at the university at his seminar on Grief. Marc was blessed with stunning good looks, and a brilliant mind. A quintessential psychiatrist, he made people feel good about themselves. Brought together in common interests, they enjoyed a passionate relationship over the course of fifteen years. Their ten-year marriage was constructed of enduring friendship and indestructible love. Now, without warning, Karma had declared her unworthy, and delivered an aneurysm that blew that life to smithereens.
In the weeks following Marc’s funeral the numbness subsided and her vision cleared. In the next stage of Grief she was confined in the cave of Anger, where fires of indignation impaired her thoughts, and incinerated her ability to reason. Propelled by Fury, Ellie spent the next week torching her relationship with her daughter Clair. She lashed out at everyone, even Foster Loving, Marc’s closest friend and confident. Foster stood by her through it all, listening, and holding her while she wept. She had the temerity nevertheless, to blame him for Marc’s death.
Having successfully distanced everyone, Ellie crawled through the Tunnel of Grief, to the cave of Bargaining. Anger clung to her while she sequestered with Panic and Delusion. For hours on end, she obsessed senselessly. “Why am I being punished? What did I do to deserve this pain?” She promised to be a better person if she could talk to Marc one more time. Nothing changed. An exhausted Ellie corralled Anger, but hung on to Bargaining.
Marc and Ellie had planned an after Christmas get away to their favorite mountain lodge, to celebrate her birthday. Convinced that there she would connect with Marc, she stuffed Bargaining in a suitcase and set out alone. At the lodge, she unpacked and set Bargaining in a chair. “Don’t leave me yet,” she wagged her finger, “we’re not done.”
Ellie knew her next confinement would be the cave of Depression. She knew that once Depression isolated her, Guilt and Anxiety could cast an immutable pall upon her soul. The caves of Deliberation, Choice, and Acceptance might never favor her with Redemption.
With courageous desperation, she freshened up for her birthday. She remembered Clair saying she shouldn’t worry about feeling good, because “the minute you do, Karma knocks you to your knees, and no one notices. But people do notice if you don’t look good.” Inside Ellie felt sandblasted. On the outside she looked good. Elegant in a black turtleneck and leggings, and gold jewelry, she tucked Bargaining, and “Einstein’s Dreams,” Alan Lightman’s little book about time-loops and the human condition, into her shoulder bag and headed downstairs.
Three days after Christmas, the lodge was quiet. Ellie settled into an empty nook overlooking snow-covered hills. She sat Bargaining next to her and ordered a scotch. Only a year ago she and Marc had frolicked in the frosted air among snow-laden evergreens. Was it them she saw on the hill?
She turned her attention to Lightman’s words, “And just as all things will be repeated in the future, all things now happening happened a million times before.” As she brooded over her future, remorseful for her behaviors, a man approached. He stood casually, his hands in his pockets. He was classic, and fit, with an understated confidence. A familiar smell of warm oatmeal cookies roused her senses. He spoke, but she didn’t hear him.
Bargaining provoked her to respond. “Oh, Hello. I’m sorry. Were you talking to me?”
His fingers brushed her shoulder. “I didn’t mean to startle you, Ellie. May I join you? Would that be all right?”
“Doctor Loving?” She never used his first name.
“Yes, Ellie, I’m here.” He leaned toward her.
“I see that. But why? You’re with someone? Friends I mean?”
“Hum? No, no friends. I’m here to get away from life I think. It’s quiet here.” He looked around. “A good place to seek redemption, if you know what I mean.”
“Yes. I think I do.”
“The truth is, Ellie,” he motioned toward the chair near the window, “can I sit?”
“Sure, I guess.”
“Ellie, I know this is confusing.”
“Uh, no. It’s way more than confusing.”
“Call me by my name, please, Ellie, can you do that?”
“All right. Okay. Foster. There.”
He fidgeted. When he did look at her, almost as if he were afraid, he hesitated. After a long slow breath, he continued. “The truth is, Clair told me you were here. She’s worried about you. Daughters do that; so do friends. My heart aches for you, Ellie, for your loss I mean. I’m here for you. How about dinner.”
Bargaining alerted, tugging Ellie’s sleeve. “This is it,” she exhorted. “He’s your chip. Trade Emptiness for him.”
“Excuse me?” She said, as much to herself as to him.
“Could we have dinner together?”
“I don’t know, Foster.” She stammered. “I think it might be better if I’m alone.”
With no family of his own, Foster had been Marc’s partner and colleague before Ellie. A competitor for her time, she gave him no quarter. He had always avoided her. Now, in this place, he was offering solace, and she was pushing back.
“I feel trapped too, Ellie. My wretched heart can find no salvation.” He implored, “It’s not the same pain as yours of course, but maybe I can, um, hold you up? Oh, God, I’m fumbling this.”
What he meant was: maybe I can love you. I always have. Instead, he said “Please, Ellie, what was said last week; you’re grieving; your anger is understandable. I know you feel deserted. I don’t hold you responsible for anything you said. Clair doesn’t either. Grief’s mission is clear, Ellie. We need it to heal. Maybe I can help you heal. Will you let me?”
He reached for her hand. Bargaining released her. A wretched fog of Trepidation invaded her heart attempting to separate her from salvation. Blinking through tears, she heard Grief calling to confine her in Depression. She closed her eyes, paused and drew a deep breath. At that moment, Marc chose to speak: “Isolation prolongs depression.”
She would not survive alone. Perhaps Marc had sent Foster. Maybe isolation wasn’t her best option. Maybe, for this birthday, it was friendship. She accepted Foster’s hand. “Maybe we can help each other.”